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Home > Craft Topics > Craft Introductions > Mosaics

The Craft of Mosaics

The Craft of MosaicsMosaics Introduction

One of the great architectural arts, mosaics have been used in grandiose public buildings, religious monuments and private homes for thousands of years. Long lasting and colourful, they can play an important part in modern design, and can be used to decorate practically any surface.

Origins of Mosaics

The earliest mosaics are believed to have originated in the Near East some 5000 years ago. Much later the Greek and Roman civilisations produced more figurative work and developed techniques to cut pieces of ceramic, glass and metal to fit the shape required exactly.  

The Romans used mosaics to decorate their great public buildings, temples and palaces. Even in private villas mosaics were popular, making colourful floor and wall features in courtyards and other areas. As a form of artistic expression mosaics had the advantage of being both hard wearing, long lasting and functional. At the same time, they were perfect for grandiose, breathtaking murals reflecting the wealth and power of the people.  
The qualities these ancient civilisations recognized in mosaics so long ago are still important today.

Basic technique of making Mosaics

The site of the mosaic is the first factor to be considered by the mosaic maker: it dictates how the piece is to be made and the materials which can be used. The building or room for which the mosaic is designed may also suggest a theme for the design.  
If the mosaic is to be sited outside, then the tesserae (pieces which make up a mosaic) need to be of a hard wearing material to withstand the local climate. So too must the adhesives or cement used to hold them in place. Outside mosaics often use a lot of bright, rich colours which look stunning in the sunshine and also stand out in dull weather.  

The choice of materials for an indoor mosaic is less restricted: the maker can use more delicate materials, as well as types usually used outside.  

The size of the project is particularly important. A small mosaic which will be seen at close quarters calls for very precise cutting and positioning of the tesserae. This allows the maker to work a very intricate, detailed picture.  

A large wall mosaic, on the other hand, will make little sense close up, but falls into perspective when viewed from a distance. Because the mosaic will not be viewed close up, the tesserae can be larger and more crudely cut. This can be used to advantage to give a bold effect not possible on a small scale mosaic.  

On a larger project such as a big wall mosaic, the work is done in sections, usually in a workshop. A scaled down master plan is made, in dictating colour scheme and type of tesserae to be used. At the same time a full sized cartoon is drawn up and divided into manageable sections. A 20ft x 10ft (6 x 3m) mosaic, for example, may be divided into eight 5 x 5ft (1.5 x 1.5m) sections.  

Each section is then made up individually and carefully numbered in accordance with the master plan. Once all the pieces are ready, then they are taken to the site and fixed in position.  

A mosaic can be made in one of two ways – either direct method or the more complex indirect method. In both cases, the craftsman cuts the tesserae to the exact size and shape required as he is putting them into position. There are no shortcuts when making a mosaic – the tesserae are always cut and placed by hand, making this a time consuming craft.  

Direct method - This is the easiest method for the mosaic maker. The tesserae are placed straight onto a base of wet concrete. This means that the design can take on a character of its own as the craftsman can see the design emerging while he works and can adapt it where he sees fit. It also allows the surface to be uneven which adds texture to the mosaic.  

The problem with this method is that unless the work is done on site, problems can arise when moving the mosaic into position. Sections can be made, but they are cumbersome and heavy, making them difficult to transport and manouvre.  

Indirect method – The design is drawn onto paper which is then coated with a water soluble glue. The tesserae are stuck face down onto the paper. Once all the sections are complete, they are taken to the mosaics location.  
The surface to be decorated is coated with  strong adhesive, and the back of the mosaic is laid against it. Once the adhesive has been given time to dry, the paper is dampened and removed from the front.  

The drawback of the indirect method is that the maker has to work on the deign back to front and cannot see clearly how it is developing. This means he or she has to stick closely to the original design, and the front of the mosaic has to be flat.  

Grouting – Once the pieces are in position, the final step is to grout the entire mosaic to fill in the gaps between the pieces. Cement or polyvinyl acetate are commonly used for this. The grouting is spread over the whole of the mosaic, making sure all the gaps are filled. The surface is then given a thorough cleaning to remove the excess.  

Although these lines of grouting seem thin, they do in fact take up considerable surface area of the mosaic and an integral part of the composition. They are the lines which guide the eye along the tesserae. The tesserae sets the colour scheme for the mosaic, and the grouting can be dyed to blend in with the design.  

Whichever method is used, sharp tesserae cutters and tweezers will be needed.

Almost any material can be used as tesserae, from the traditional glass and ceramic pieces to foil, stones and broken tiles. Specialist suppliers have a vast array of colours and materials in all price ranges.

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